During the past several days, I’ve seen images of young people all over the country protesting racial injustice and the brutal death of George Floyd. As an older female who remembers the 1960s, I’ve witnessed a lifetime of racism. But until recently, I did not recognize the extent of my own “white privilege.” When a group of individuals organized a silent protest in my community, I knew that I needed to take a stand.
Those with Hope and Those with Little
I never thought much about enjoying certain privileges because I was born white. I grew up as a hard-scrabble, disadvantaged female in a poor, mixed-race neighborhood; I couldn’t see how I had advantages that some of the other kids didn’t have. Many of us got picked on for various reasons, and some of us were bullied. But even when other kids or my teachers discounted me, I knew deep down inside that I was capable of excelling. I know now that some of my black peers had been beaten down so many times that they likely had very little hope to cling to.
Facing a Lifetime of Injustice
I did notice that some of the black kids at my school walked in groups; I didn’t understand how walking in large groups was a necessary form of protection. I didn’t realize that even those who might eventually leave our poor neighborhood would continue to be single out and often targeted for abuse or mistreatment. Boys, in particular, would grow up as young men who would more likely be profiled or incarcerated than their white peers. Even today, the NAACP reports that African Americans are incarcerated at a rate that is five times higher than whites.
White Privilege and Opportunities
I didn’t think of myself as having white privilege when I went to college because I had to hold down jobs, take care of my children, and work hard to complete my degree. Yet, I grew up knowing that I would eventually go to college—it was part of an identity that came from my mother’s family.
When I landed my first job after college as an insurance adjuster, I took it for granted that I would be hired. I had a college degree, I had a family member in the insurance industry, and I looked the part as a middle-class, white professional.
Sexism and the Intersection of Sexism and Racism
As I started working, I became aware of something that didn’t have a name at the time—sexism. As was true for black females, I was inappropriately touched, paid less, and patronized as a female. As a female professional, I didn’t see that I had any special privileges. But I later learned that some of my black female colleagues had received harsh reviews, even though they had performed much as I had; yet, I received positive reviews. I also learned that at least while I was still younger, I could easily change jobs and get hired. I now realize that most, or at least many of my black female colleagues would not have those same opportunities.
Aging and the White Advantage
Now I’m an older woman who has lived sixty-eight years. I am keenly aware of age discrimination and age prejudice—especially as an older female. I’ve experienced age discrimination in the workplace and in the marketplace. I’ve also been demeaned and patronized in a variety of ways. Other times, I’m treated as though I’m invisible.
As an older woman, I had questioned whether white privilege applied to those of us who are sometimes publicly referred to as “the elderly.” But I realize that I enjoy relatively good health because of the opportunities I’ve had as a white person. I’ve also been free to move in and out of different groups without question because I am white.
Because I had the opportunity to move into a middle-class life and was encouraged to get an education, I probably won’t end up living in poverty as I continue to age. Older women are at a greater risk of poverty than men because of wage disparities and care-giving responsibilities during our working years. But older black women are much more likely to face poverty than white women.
As a mother, I’ve never had to worry about my sons experiencing police brutality because of systemic racism or being targeted by White Supremacists. As a grandmother, I don’t have to worry about my grandsons being profiled or brutally attacked because of their skin color. I have enjoyed white privilege all my life.
Taking a Stand
When I witnessed police using brutal force against George Floyd that lead to his death, I felt what so many of us have felt during the past several days—outrage, horror, a sense of injustice, and a recognition that systemic racism in this country is everyone’s responsibility. Like so many others, I could no longer be a bystander without saying or doing anything.
I stood in front of a Fred Meyer store in my community with my “Black Lives Matters” sign. I stood with older people, younger people, children, and a couple of police officers. While a few people in cars drove by and jeered us, most people were very supportive.
I pray we have finally come to a place where the majority of us in our country recognize that many of us have enjoyed special treatment while others have continued to experience inequitable treatment because of systemic racism. We can no longer be bystanders to injustice.